Wednesday 28 September 2016

Roscommon star gave distinct impression of greatness

John Joe Nerney's courage and tenacity were legendary

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

‘They were a tough breed of men in those days and there were none tougher than John Joe Nerney (left)’
‘They were a tough breed of men in those days and there were none tougher than John Joe Nerney (left)’

There always seemed to be something heroic about John Joe Nerney, the man his team-mate Liam Gilmartin once described as "pound for pound the best forward to play for Roscommon."

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The Boyle clubman, who passed away last Wednesday evening, was part of one of the most extraordinary teams in Gaelic football history. In 1940 Roscommon were playing in the junior grade, hadn't won a Connacht senior title since 1914 and had only made one provincial final in the previous 19 years. Four years later they were winning a second All-Ireland title in a row, defeating Kerry in what was probably the team's finest hour.

Nerney was at left corner forward on that 1944 team and played a key role as they powered past the Kingdom to win 1-9 to 2-4. And he was there too in 1946 when Roscommon appeared to have the final wrapped up only for Kerry to snatch a draw with two late goals. The replay in which Kerry prevailed by 2-8 to 0-10 is regarded as one of the finest football matches of all-time.

He was still there when Roscommon shocked All-Ireland champions Mayo in the 1952 Connacht final and proved that the victory was no fluke by repeating the result in the following year's provincial decider, though they proved unable to go all the way on those occasions.

The Roscommon teams of that era weren't just the best to ever come out of the county, they were as good as anything Connacht has seen. There was a kind of magical aura about them and the tales of their collective training camps where the letters KTBL - Keep The Ball Low - were written on the walls. The team of Donal Keenan, Jimmy Murray, Liam Gilmartin, Brendan Lynch and John Joe Nerney captured the public imagination. The 79,245 attendance at that 1944 decider was not only a new record, it surpassed the previous figure by almost 20,000.

Their left corner-forward was a small man at a time when small men didn't get a lot of protection from referees and defenders showed no mercy. But his courage and tenacity were legendary and he became a byword for integrity both on and off the pitch. He was still playing club football in the early 1970s and by the '80s had turned to running, completing half a dozen marathons, the last of them in Dublin in 1988 when he was well into his 60s.

John Joe Nerney was one of those people who seemed never to stop thinking of himself as a sportsman. His involvement with his home club spanned 70-odd years and he also took time out to manage the neighbouring Eastern Harps club to their first ever Sligo senior title in 1975.

He was a familiar sight on the streets of Boyle, where I went to school, doing his rounds as a postman and in a part of the country where All-Ireland medallists were very thin on the ground an almost legendary quality adhered to the man.

Looking at him, still so energetic in his 60s, he looked like he was keeping fit on the off chance that he might be drafted in as a sub one of these days, you got a distinct impression of greatness. If you wanted to win in Croke Park in September, we thought, perhaps you needed to have the character of John Joe Nerney.

Few footballers have so perfectly embodied the Corinthian ideal as the warrior from Boyle who made his Roscommon debut on a Sunday in 1944 having spent all Saturday working on the bog. They were a tough breed of men in those days and there were none tougher than John Joe Nerney.

It was a life well lived.

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